With any discussion on the different generations, an important first step is to define the term ‘generation’.Traditionally, a generation has been defined as ‘the average interval of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring’. This biological definition has placed a generation for millennia at around 20-25 years in span. While in the past this definition has served sociologists well, it is irrelevant today. Because cohorts are changing so quickly in response to new technologies, changing career and study options and shifting societal values, two decades is far too broad a generational span.
Also, if we apply a biological definition today, a generation would span a larger time than ever as childbirth is pushed back later than ever. On average, the time between birth of parents and birth of their offspring has stretched out from two decades to more than three. In 1982, the median age of a woman having her first baby was 25, today it is 31.
So today generations are defined sociologically rather than biologically. A generation refers to a cohort of people born within a similar span of time (15 years at the upper end) who share a comparable age and life stage and who were shaped by a particular span of time (events, trends and developments).
Because of the clear demographic impacts of the post-WWII generation, the term ‘Baby Boomer’ entered the vernacular. Sixty years on, this label remains the default term describing the cohort born in the birth-boom years of 1946-1964. With the emergence of the Boomer label came the beginnings of a generational nomenclature, and even retro naming generations passed, such as the Federation Generation.
It was inevitable, therefore, that commentators would look for terms to describe subsequent generations. And in the case of the generation following the Boomers perhaps Canadian author Douglas Coupland presented the solution they were looking for. Then just exiting his twenties, Coupland published his first novel, Generation X: Tales for an accelerated culture, in 1991. This fictional work explored his generation and – intentionally or otherwise – created a label that stuck. Ironically, the book was about a generation that defied labels – ‘just call us X’, he said. Yet the label remained, spawning the labels for Generation Y and Z also.
Other names given to Generation Z include “Zed”, “Zee”, “Bubble-wrap kid”, “The new millennial”, “Digital integrator” “Screenager” and “iGen.
For more on understanding the global generations, get a copy of Mark McCrindle’s book The ABC of XYZ: Understanding the Global Generations.